As defeats away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome piled up for the 2013 New Orleans Saints, quarterback Drew Brees reflexively invoked two statistics anytime anyone asked him about whether he was concerned that his team dominated at home but had been mediocre at best on the road.
The Saints have one of the best away winning percentages since he arrived in New Orleans in 2006 (now .571) and the best (.615) since 2009, the year they won Super Bowl XLIV.
But then the Rams (6-8) this past Sunday picked Brees off twice, sacked him four times, recovered a surprise onside kick in the second quarter and blocked a field goal — one of two Saints misses in the game — to hand New Orleans (10-4) a 27-16 loss, its fourth on the road in its past five away games.
In the wake of the defeat, kicker Garret Hartley was waived and replaced with free-agent veteran Shayne Graham. Left tackle Charles Brown was benched, his position given to rookie Terron Armstead.
And Brees could no longer deny that his team, which this season is 7-0 at the Superdome and 3-4 on the road, was performing like one that couldn’t execute when it traveled.
“We’re proving you guys right,” Brees said. “Unfortunately, we don’t feel that way about ourselves.”
When the Saints returned from St. Louis, Brees said: “Obviously, we understand our deficiencies on the road here the last couple of trips. It’s great motivation to really hammer down this week, find ways to improve and get better.”
That’s absolutely necessary if the Saints don’t want their aspirations of securing the NFC’s No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the postseason take a staggering hit when they visit the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
Carolina is tied with the Saints for first place in the NFC South, is 6-1 at home and hasn’t lost there since a 12-7 season-opening setback to the Seattle Seahawks (12-2). Carolina will be trying to avenge a 31-13 loss at the Superdome on Dec. 8 and seize control of the division.
The Panthers will count on a defense that’s allowing the second-fewest yards and points per game (296.3 and 14.9, respectively). It’s also ranked second against the run, permitting just 84.9 yards on the ground per game and it has the second-most sacks in the league (45).
On offense, the Panthers can wear down the Saints’ defense with a rushing attack that’s averaging 129.4 yards per game. A Rams ground game averaging more than 14 yards fewer than that tore off 144 yards against New Orleans.
The Superdome version of the 2013 Saints matches up well with Carolina. The Saints who have gone 1-4 on the road since winning at Tampa Bay and Chicago early in the season won’t.
At the Superdome, Brees is completing 71.9 percent of his passes. He’s thrown for 350.6 yards per game, 23 touchdowns and three interceptions, posting a passer rating of 120.1.
To compare, the 112.9 rating owned by the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning through 14 games is tops in the NFL.
The ground attack and defense thrive equally in the Dome, where the Saints are plus-5 in turnover differential. The Saints get 104.3 rushing yards per game at home, and they score 32.8 points per game there.
The defense has compiled 26 sacks and 12 takeaways, holding opponents to 156.7 passing yards, 96.4 rushing yards, 267.4 total yards and 15.4 points per game.
But on the road, the Saints are minus-5 in turnover differential. Brees has completed 64.5 percent of his passes; has thrown for 292.3 yards per game, 11 TDs and seven picks; and has posted a passer rating that’s 32.2 points lower than the one he’s got at home.
Each away game, the Saints have been getting 30.2 fewer ground yards and 14.4 fewer points. Their defense on the road has gotten nine fewer sacks, seven fewer takeaways and given up 90.7 more total yards per game.
“Obviously, we’re currently 3-4 on the road this season. That’s something that is below average,” coach Sean Payton said this week. “I think it’s important that we have a good plan going in and are able to handle the challenges of noise, weather — whatever it is, we’re going to be tested with it.”
Saints linebacker Curtis Lofton said his team has emphasized having “energy from ... play one” on the road. In its past two away games, New Orleans has helplessly watched Seattle and St. Louis race to 17-0 leads.
“You can’t play catch-up football, and I feel like that is what we have been doing on the road,” said Lofton. “We have to come out and start fast — not only start fast, but we have to finish strong. We have to do that against Carolina.”